The helicopters heading toward the emergency department at our hospital were filled with urgent hope. They knew all wounded arriving to Balad had a 98 percent chance of seeing their families again.
The first person off the helicopter was a young lieutenant who walked to the nurse’s station where I was standing. Mistaking me for someone in charge, he urged me to look after his three buddies.
Then he raised his bloodied hand and added, “I think I’ve got a bullet wound, too.” I shot a wide-eyed look to the chief nurse who began prepping the lieutenant for surgery.
As the lieutenant was prepped, he explained that the soldiers on the incoming stretchers were part of the platoon he’d been with for the past 15 months.
Across the room from the lieutenant, the staff worked feverishly to keep these soldiers together and make them part of our 98 percent survivor rate.
Clothes were cut off. IV’s were inserted. Chest compressions made.
However, within just a few minutes, the more experienced doctors were stepping back from the litters and staring at their own bloody boots.
“Chap!” summoned the doctor from the far bay of the trauma room. Arriving bedside, I looked down at the young Army corporal staring up at me. “We’ve pronounced,” the doctor said. “You want to say a few words?”
I prayed a quick prayer as someone else called out, “We need you over here too, chap!” I crossed the room to another bay to see the staff covering a 31-year-old soldier with a sheet.
Not knowing yet what faiths were represented, I shouted to my chaplain assistant to call our priest and rabbi.
Meanwhile, competing pleas were coming from the bedside of an Army private as well as from the bedside of their interpreter.
They were all dead.
Short sobs could be heard over the deafening silence that had enveloped the room like one of our dust storms. All I could hear was the snapping sound of elastic gloves being removed in disgust as each team simultaneously realized the three soldiers were dead on arrival.
There was nothing anybody could do except don more gloves and help the incoming patient administration team. My assistant and I joined the team, where we checked the dog tags for the religious preference we’d need for the memorial service called the Fallen Warrior Ceremony.
Then, our team went though the pockets of these young men. Coins, pens and papers were pulled from their pockets. Patches were stripped from the uniforms.
Then a gasp was heard as an airman removed pictures of a soldier’s wife standing with two small children. More tears.
“Are you alright?” I asked the bleary eyed airman.
“Yes,” she lied.
The rabbi and the priest walked among the trauma staff to lay hands on the heaving shoulders of young servicemembers who found this incident too horrendous for words.
Soon I walked to the table where the young lieutenant sat shaking his head and making nervous twitches at the confirmation his team members were all dead.
Well, not all of them. The lieutenant survived. So did his sergeant.
He explained how his platoon was surprised by the enemy as they searched a house. In the return fire, the two surviving members killed the insurgents who had killed their comrades.
“We got the SOB’s,” he told me in language soldiers often hide from their chaplain. “They were some bad guys. They were torturing women and children. We paid a terrible price, but we got the SOB’s.”
I nodded in sympathetic agreement, both to his assessment of the price and the vengeance of the swift reply.
Later that night, I clinched my fists with holy rage as I recalled a Bible verse: Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.
And I was grateful that vengeance did not belong to me.